UNC, App State meet in early-season showdown

It will be the first time the teams play in Boone

The offense clicked and the defense got better as the game went on in UNC's season-opening win over Florida A&M, but the Tar Heels travel to Boone on Saturday for what promises to be a much tougher matchup against App State. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

BOONE — History will be made on Saturday when the Tar Heels enter Kidd Brewer Stadium for the first time to face App State.

UNC (1-0) has faced the Mountaineers in Chapel Hill twice — once in 1940 and most recently in 2019 when App State handed UNC coach Mack Brown a 34-31 loss in his first year back with the Tar Heels.

The matchup in Boone this weekend will mark the second in a three-game series between the Tar Heels and Mountaineers that was announced in 2017. The final game will be Sept. 9, 2023, when App State travels to Chapel Hill again.

“It’s a two-for-one deal. We’re playing two in Chapel Hill, one in Boone, all three of those games will be sold out,” App State coach Shawn Clark said during his Monday press conference. “And that’s really good for football, it’s really good for our state. This is a really big deal for our town, our county, that we’re bringing 40,000-plus people into Boone, North Carolina, Saturday at noon.”

On the field, it should be a competitive and high-scoring game between two teams who are among the schools “also receiving votes” in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

“We’re very impressed with what coach Brown has done with that team down there in Chapel Hill and we have our work cut out for us,” Clark said. “They’re very talented at the quarterback position, they have one of the best receivers in all of college football.”

While Saturday will serve as App State’s season opener, it will be the second game for the Tar Heels, who opened their season with an explosive 56-24 home win over Florida A&M on Saturday.

UNC quarterback Drake Maye, making his first career start, threw four of his five touchdown passes in the first half and six different Tar Heels scored touchdowns. Josh Downs — one of the nation’s top receivers — had two touchdown receptions, and freshman running back Omarion Hampton finished with two touchdowns and 101 rushing yards on 14 carries.

UNC announced Monday that Downs and starting cornerback Tony Grimes will both be evaluated throughout the week for injuries sustained last weekend and that their status for the App State game is still to be determined. If Grimes is unavailable, redshirt freshman Dontae Balfour would be asked to make his first career start.

Either way, Brown knows his team is in for a tough game against one of the country’s most consistent programs.

“They’re really strong at home,” Brown said of the Mountaineers. “They’ve got the sixth best record at home since 2014. They’re 42-7. They regularly win nine, 10-plus games. … They’re one of the best programs in the country. They play with confidence, they play tough, they run the ball, they stop the run.”

Back in 1983, Brown directed the Mountaineers to a 6-5 finish in his only season as App State’s head coach before leaving to take Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator position.

“All odds are against us this weekend,” Brown said, trying to embrace the underdog role. “We’re banged up. We’re taking a first-year quarterback to Boone, and they’ve got a sixth-year guy.”

That sixth-year guy is App State quarterback Chase Brice, who led the Sun Belt Conference with 3,337 passing yards last season in his first year at App State after previously playing at Clemson (2017-19) and Duke (2020).

While Brice will be without his three top targets from last season — Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams accounted for 2,456 (73%) of the team’s receiving yards — he has five offensive linemen back and Christian Wells (12 catches for 243 yards last year) as a top receiving option.

The key to Saturday’s game could be how each team’s run defense holds up.

App State’s three-headed rushing attack of All-Sun Belt candidates Nate Noel, Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington will provide a stiffer challenge for the Tar Heels than they faced last weekend against the Rattlers.

The Mountaineers’ defense, meanwhile, has only five returning players from last year’s top-30 group, a situation UNC running backs Hampton, Elijah Green and George Pettaway hope to exploit.

A win for UNC on Saturday would help the Tar Heels move past last year’s disappointing campaign, while App State will look to build momentum heading into a showdown at No. 6 Texas A&M next week.